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How Luck Shaped My Life

It had been quite some time since I carefully read the Declaration of Independence, so I recently decided to do so.


Like life itself, that document reveals contradictions. For example, it’s well-established that Thomas Jefferson “possessed” more than 600 slaves at the time he penned in the Declaration’s famous Preamble:


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”


While we all might be created equal, we definitely are not treated impartially, or positioned equally to enjoy the rights to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


Sometimes, I hear people say, “Luck comes to those who work hard.” History - and clear-eyed observation - cast doubt on that mantra. Why should my life be soaked in good fortune while the lives of so many others – many of whom work harder than I do – lack such an advantage? I can’t answer that.


Luck is an under-appreciated force in shaping destiny. For me, seven concrete influences have ushered me into good fortune:


My Ancestral Background


I descend from the lower economic classes of Italy, Germany and Ireland. My ancestors were hardscrabble farmers, miners, gamblers, seamstresses, and shepherds. They faced extended hunger, mental illness, illiteracy, and poverty. In their case, immigration forced cut-off from their parents and siblings. They still pushed forward, and survived. I am lucky to have had ancestors who modeled resilience. It inspires me to remember them when I face challenges.


My Country of Origin


When my forebearers came to the USA, I received the benefits, generations later. The acorns they planted became oaks they never saw blossom. Their offspring have realized the best the world has to offer because they embarked on an unknown journey. I am the default beneficiary of their risks and struggles. Pure luck.


My Family of Origin


I hail from a “mixed bag” family. My mother’s strong Christian faith invited me to see beyond my own selfish interests, but she pushed it with excessive vigor. She also told us not to fear the world, even though she herself had many fears. My father possessed keen street smarts and a sophisticated “bullshit detector.” But he wasn’t very present. Growing up, my sisters stood by me “in all kinds of weather,” but my brother died in a car accident at 21, before we could really know each other as adults. I didn’t choose this family. Through a mix of good luck and bad luck growing up, I’ve learned to expect and accept that all relationships come wrapped in complexity.


My Adult Children


Dumb luck is the faithful companion of parenting. You can do all the right and loving things, and still lose your kids to bad outcomes from choice, chance, or tragedy. Yes, children benefit from a solid family foundation, and I’ve tried my best to be a good dad. But there’s so much luck involved in how children evolve. All three of my adult children are alive, thriving in their own way, and in good contact with me. That grounds my life in important ways. What good fortune.


My Race


I have never toiled in the hot Southern sun picking cotton, never been pushed from my native land into a “reservation,” never been profiled because of my race, never been followed in a store, ignored at a restaurant, attacked by police dogs for peacefully demonstrating, shut off from obtaining a house mortgage, messaged for hundreds of years, in hundreds of ways that I am a second-class citizen. I have no idea what it’s like to be a minority facing widespread prejudice. Because of dumb luck, I was born white, and whatever obstacles I’ve faced pale in light of those suffered by people of color.


My Fortunate Escapes


Life could have gone wrong for me, and didn’t, because of luck. Two examples, of many: (1) A semi once sheared off the roof of a moving car I was sleeping in, avoiding decapitating me by inches because I was slumped down in the passenger seat. (2) Just after graduating from high school, I was subjected to a Vietnam War draft lottery based on birth dates. The lower the drawn number, the more likely a person was to be drafted. The highest number was 366. My number was 300, meaning it was unlikely that I would be called up. Favorable luck. I never served in that war. My next-door neighbor, Jimmy Weidner, was killed in it.


My Unsolicited Resources


Accidental exposure to influential persons has greatly enriched my life. A few examples: A Catholic bishop I didn’t even know led me to an orphanage where I met my future daughter, Maria. I lucked out having Bruce Gilman as my Field Botany professor, forever changing my relationship to the natural world. Ken and Dorothy Siegel invited me to visit inmates inside Attica Prison; I kept returning, for 20 years, reaping life-altering perspectives. Through a chance meeting with Rabbi Ed Friedman, I discovered Bowen Family Systems Theory, dramatically deepening my thinking about families, which served as an important foundation to my career.


Life has taught me that acknowledging good fortune – instead of claiming personal credit – leads me to the door of gratitude. I wonder if denying the place of luck breeds arrogance? What are your thoughts about this?


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